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Recap: SU calls on U of A to improve discrimination accountability mechanisms

Read about the Students' Union call for the university to improve discrimination reporting and the latest EDI initiatives on campus

Stemming from calls for greater action from the university, the Students’ Union and university look to discuss improving discrimination and harassment reporting and accountability mechanisms.

The Students’ Union released a statement calling for greater accountability mechanisms from the University of Alberta in addressing discrimination and harassment on July 13.

In their statement, the Students’ Union called on the university to “review and modernize” its reporting and investigation pathways, as well as to “provide clear, accessible resources for students and staff when they need to file complaints with partners like Alberta Health Services.”

The statement specifically called on the university to live up to the values of a statement written by David Turpin, former university president, after the death of George Floyd.

In it, Turpin said “We condemn anti-Black racism…We do not have the luxury of viewing these events as something that only happens elsewhere.”

The statement said students have concerns about their ability to “report discrimination and harassment in ways that hold perpetrators accountable.”  

Joel Agarwal, president of the Students’ Union, said they heard about the issue from students.

“We felt it was important for us to amplify the voices of students who have been calling for greater action from the university, specifically in addressing discrimination and harassment,” he said.

According to Agarwal, students have said the accountability mechanisms in place aren’t accessible enough, and often don’t lead to “acceptable outcomes.” One thing the Students’ Union wants to look into more are the specific issues with these systems.

“We know that the issues with university reporting and accountability mechanisms exist across the board and we’ve been calling on the university to do a full review of these mechanisms,” he said.

“We’ve been working pretty closely with the university on this,” he added. “We really appreciate the university’s prompt response to when we put out the statement.”

University responds to SU demands regarding accountability mechanisms

In a statement, Bill Flanagan, U of A president, responded to the Students’ Union’s demands the same day, saying the university sees acts of racism in the university community as unacceptable, and works to improve equity, diversity and inclusivity.

Flanagan’s statement said the university has reached out to the Students’ Union to discuss how they can improve procedures to be “as transparent and fair as possible.”

Flanagan said education is a key tool to addressing systemic racism and the university is willing to to “seek understanding and new paths forward.” 

In his statement, Flanagan also mentioned the university’s current measures to combat racism, such as the Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) specialists in leadership positions, and units such as the Office of Safe Disclosure & Human Rights, where university members can “share their experiences and concerns about inappropriate conduct, discrimination, and racism.” The statement ended saying the university is “committed” to taking action for increased diversity, with EDI as a part of these efforts, but that they “can and will do more.”

Agarwal met with president Flanagan and raised student concerns about the accountability mechanisms, and said he is “reassured” by the president’s commitment to working with them to address these issues.

“Working with the university right now, it’s clear that they are taking this issue very seriously,” he said. “We’re going to be following up [with the University] and I’m very hopeful that we’ll actually see some tangible changes.”

In an emailed statement, Catherine Swindlehurst, chief of staff and interim vice-president (university relations), said they heard the Students’ Union’s concerns and ideas and talked about current work to improve EDI.

“We had a really productive and open discussion with the Students’ Union regarding their call to action,” she said. “At this point though, it’s still too early to comment on specifics, as we are working together to develop next steps.”

Agarwal said he has also been in conversations with the Black Medical Students’ Association and the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, which has put together a working group to address some of these concerns. 

If students have ideas about making the accountability mechanisms more effective, Agarwal said students can contact him or the other Students’ Union executives.

“There is more tangible action that we need to see, but I’m optimistic that whatever the action is, whether it’s the policy change or whatever it may be, at the end of the day students really are protected and have an inclusive environment to be studying at here at the University of Alberta,” he said.

EDI projects currently underway at the university

In a recent interview, Wendy Rodgers, deputy provost and co-chair of the U of A’s EDI Scoping and Action groups, said the university is trying to develop an EDI approach, driven by the EDI strategic plan

The goals for these projects, she said, include achieving greater diversity at the university, making sure they are welcoming and supportive of everyone at the university, and making sure everyone has equitable access to programs, services, benefits, and payroll.

According to Rodgers, students are asking for greater sensitivity when hearing their concerns and how the university addresses them. The president has had a few meetings with groups such as the collective of Black Student Associations and the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association, she added, and those groups are now coming forward and telling them what they need and would like to see.

“I think that is an important step in making the students we already have feel heard, and then whatever we can do to improve their support and make sure that they feel welcome and included,” she said. “Some of that stuff is pretty obvious and we can get on it right away, some of it might take a little bit longer, but we have to start.”

Rodgers also said the university just completed an EDI census among the faculty and staff, looking at demographic characters such as gender, sexuality and racial and ethnic origin. Data collection was completed in December, and the analysis was in progress when COVID-19 held up the work. The report should come out soon, she added, and they have just started work on an EDI census for students.

Students have been asking for more data to be collected on specific equity-seeking groups, Rodgers said. While she is not directly involved in the project, the EDI census for students will likely be similar to the staff census, she added, but some questions might be tailored more towards students. 

She added that the census alone won’t help to see demographic differences and set targets to address them, and so they need pathway projects as well. Part of the EDI projects underway examine pathways and support programs for students and staff to access different programs, she said.

“[These pathway programs ask] are we providing the right services to the right people in time to help them be successful in their university programs,” she said.

Keeping the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, Rodgers said the burdens of the pandemic are not sitting evenly, and some underrepresented groups are in general experiencing a heavier burden.

“[The pandemic has created] good opportunities, actually, because COVID is highlighting some inequities that pre-existed COVID, but it’s giving us a nice leverage point in addressing those things, hopefully in a more fulsome way that will endure after COVID,” she added.

Overall, Rodgers hopes to shift towards a more inclusive culture at the university. With a more inclusive approach, she explained, they can offer broader options, where they automatically meet more needs and make people feel more comfortable, instead of people having to say when the narrow options don’t work for them or don’t feel inclusive. 

“[By doing this], we will just lift the whole university up a little bit,” she said.

Kate Turner

Kate Turner is a third-year Native Studies student and was The Gateway’s Winter 2019 Staff Reporter. She is passionate about human rights, learning languages, and talking to people about their passions. When not furiously typing away, she usually can’t be found because she’s out exploring and having adventures.

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